A legacy of love

Stories can be lost. Especially stories about our heritage.  I wish I had asked my father — before he had his stroke two years ago — more about his parents. Now, many details are missing and gone. And I will never know.

But I have salvaged something. While going through old papers in my father’s office, I found this piece he had written about his father, mi abuelo, my grandfather. I have rewritten some of it, but the message remains the same. Here is that story.

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grandpa enrique

My grandfather Enrique Zuniga

My grandfather was born in Mexico in the late 1800s — and orphaned. When he was five years old, he was adopted by a couple who owned a bakery. They forced him to sell bread on the streets from early morning until late at night. He was told he could only eat one piece for his lunch and the rest he had to sell. If he came home with bread he had not sold, he would be whipped and sent to bed without supper.

With tears in his eyes, he would sit by the street curb, crying and begging people to buy his sweet breads because he knew what would happen if he didn’t.

Fast forward — and much of the story from his childhood until his adulthood is missing — my grandfather came to the United States. He lost two wives to death. My father and his brother were born from my grandfather’s third marriage.

By the age of 40 my grandfather had opened a chain of small grocery stores throughout South Texas, the forerunners of today’s supermarkets. He was a generous man and financially helped at least 500 people throughout that area to start their own small businesses.  Perhaps because of his own childhood, he also loved and helped children. For years at Christmas, he gave gifts to the boys and girls in the small town of Donna, Texas.

In 1948 my grandfather was dying of cancer, and my father saw him cry for the first time in his life. “He was crying not because he was slowly dying,” my father wrote, “but because he would no longer able to give the gift of joy to all the children in the town at Christmas.”

When my father was 10 years old, my grandfather told him this:

tears_from_heaven“If one day when you are grown up and away from home and you feel alone, betrayed, abandoned and forgotten by the whole world, don’t be afraid to cry. Go ahead and let the tears splash on your clothes or on the ground. These will be tears of relief and a new awareness in your life … more importantly, these tears will be from your heart …”

But after my grandfather died, my father didn’t cry. “I just felt my father had lived his life to the fullest and had earned his reward,” my father wrote.

A month after the funeral, my father took my mother — pregnant with me — to her hometown in Tennessee. After a week there, he told my mother he needed to walk and pray. She suggested a hill behind her parents’ home.

“I sat under the shade of a big tree overlooking the beautiful green pastures and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains,” my dad wrote. “Then I began talking to my father. And I really felt he listened and responded. So I cried and cried and cried. And I thanked him for all the lessons he had taught me. I felt free and ready to go back into the world and share everything I learned from him — starting with the great love he had for humanity.”

My grandfather died a few months before I was born. How I wish I had known him. How I wish I had asked dad many questions about him. I know so little.

But this I do know. A legacy of love runs deep through our family’s lineage. It pulses like a heartbeat, borne from an orphaned boy forced to sell breads on the streets of Mexico. A boy who could have taken any road, but through God’s grace was moved to make something of his life and to offer compassion and service to others.

love never failsThose many years ago, he told my father this:

“Don’t ever forget, son, that it makes no difference where life or destiny takes you. Always remember that what you do for yourself will die with you. But what you do for others lives on forever.”

My father took those words to heart. Through his inspirational/motivational talks, he helped countless people to grow spiritually, healed others and saved lives. Now, he is no longer able. But what he did for others lives on.

When the time comes for dad to go home to God, I will remember my grandfather’s words. I will cry. My heart will break. And I will pray to carry his legacy of love forward to the world.

Gracias, mi abuelo, Enrique. Gracias, mi padre, Antonio.

 

 

 

 

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It will be all right

In my last blog post, “Write from the Heart,” I mentioned an essay. I wrote it about 10 years ago at a time my mother wasn’t feeling well. I stuck it inside a desk drawer, fearful of sending it to any publication because, well …. I felt vulnerable. If the essay was published, I would be revealing my heart to the world. Personal stuff. And yet, something told me to share it because it might inspire or help others.

I finally sent the essay in to the Writers Digest Magazine annual writing competition. Among thousands of entries, it placed fifth in the inspirational category. Some of you have read this before. But for those who haven’t, here is an abbreviated version. May you find something in these words that give you hope. That you, too, may know “it will be all right.”

*****

Mom is upstairs. Dad says not to bother her. She’s sleeping. My mother never sleeps during the day and lately she motherandme-183x300hasn’t looked well. The bedroom door is open a crack and I peek through. She is on her side, her back to me, her knees drawn up. I am reminded of people in hospital beds. Something inside me wants to cry.

She is stoic. Or in denial. I’m not sure. She has never been one to admit tiredness or illness. Somewhere in her life or in her Scotch-Irish genes she learned it was wrong to show weakness. So later when I ask how she is, of course she says she is fine.

I feel her forehead and she has a fever. She explains it away, as she does most things. I was sitting in the hot sun, she says. Her eyes look strange. I don’t like this. She never gets sick. Ever. Something inside me is screaming this isn’t right. I want it to go away.

I walk outside into her garden. Since she became ill the weeds are tangling and mucking up the yard. It’s too much to see her flower beds in disarray, her rose bushes dying. My eyes fill. She is still alive, I scold myself. But what will I do when she dies, I ask myself?

The blood work comes back from the doctor. It’s not Lyme disease, as he suspected. I am at ease with this news but also on edge. What is causing this? The sides of her neck are still stiff; her voice sounds husky and strained; her eyes are haggard and she has a chronic fever. The doctor is baffled. He wants to see her on Monday for more tests.

As unnamed fear lurks around the borders of my heart. I am teetering. I have struggled to find my life and now I fear for my mother’s. I am selfish. I fear losing not just my mother but my most ardent supporter. She is the person who planted a love of reading in me. When I was 14, she gave me the classic novel Jane Eyre to read. “You might like this,” HANDSTOUCHINGS-33_000she said. I read it 23 times that year.

She is the person who encouraged me to write, telling me never to give up. But I feel like I am. My life is like her decaying garden, trapped in the briars of despair, yearning for roots and wings. I have no answers. For anything.

Days pass and two weeks later mom feels better. Whatever plagued her body is leaving. The doctor never finds out what it was. But for me it is a wake-up call. I see her now in a new way. Her brief illness has taught me to appreciate each second with her. And I am grateful for all she is — the country girl who grew up in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, who married a Mexican-American and moved to Donna, Texas.

A woman who had to learn Spanish, live in a poverty-stricken barrio and care for her bedridden mother-in-law. A woman who suffered with me through bouts of depression and struggled with some of her sons through troubled times as teenagers.

Most of all, she is a woman who has always smiled. She has hummed and sung her way through life. Many days the melodic strains of “Oh, what a beautiful morning …” drifted through the house as she stood over a pot of steaming chili or a sink of yolk-encrusted plates. And not once in her 75 years have I heard her complain. She always has had a trust and faith in God that is her solid center.

It is only now as I mature that I understand her stoicism. She has had to be strong to survive. She has endured more than any of us will probably ever know. And in the silence of her heart, even as she suffered, she has always believed that God knows best and has the bigger picture, one we often can’t see. She has told me this when I’ve been at my lowest points.

“It will be all right,” she has comforted. “I just know it.”rose bud blooming

As we chat in the kitchen, I see mom is getting better. But she’s also growing older. She looks tired. The truth is, we never know how much time we have left with those we love. Now is all we have. Mom is talking about the latest book she is reading when a flash of red outside the window snags my vision. It is a rose bush she has planted. One bud is beginning to bloom.

Somewhere inside my soul I tell myself it will be all right. I just know it.  I reach out for mom’s hand. I tell her I love her.

Write from the heart

Sometimes life pulls us away from those things we love so we might tend to other pressing matters. This is where I am now in my life. I love writing this blog, but instead of writing a new post, I am re-purposing this from another blog I was proud to be a part of it.

Birth of a Novel continues to offer informative and enjoyable posts for writers by talented author and blogger Sandra Carey Cody and you might want to visit.

To the end, this post is about writing.

After all, my blog “Stories for the Journey” is sub-titled “Reflections on writing, life and the spirit.” So perhaps it’s time to offer some words about the writing process. And even though it’s focused at writers, please be open. You might find something helpful, hopeful or enlightening here as well — as a reader, as a fellow traveler on the journey.

Here is an abbreviated version of “Write from the Heart” as it was published in December 2011, from the Birth of a Novel blog.

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heart you are hereLet me tell you a brief story. Seven years ago I wrote an inspirational essay about my mother. For those many years it languished in a desk drawer. Why? Because it was deeply personal. By sending it out into the world I knew I would be revealing my heart. I would be vulnerable and I risked appearing maudlin, too serious — at worst, foolish.

Still, something within me whispered, “Share it. It might touch others.” At the last minute I sent it into a prestigious writing competition and it placed well among thousands of entries nationwide.

What’s my point in telling you this? I believe as writers we are challenged to “write from the heart.” Terrifying? You bet. But plumbing such depths is also what I believe to be our calling as writers. When we have the courage to be authentic — when we dare visit and share those deep, hidden places with their fears, sorrows and memories — then our writing in some mysterious way also touches a universal chord.

In her book Bird by Bird,  Anne Lamott writes:

“So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable, worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.”

How do we write from the heart? I have no definitive answers. I do believe, however, we must make room to hear what our hearts are telling us. For some it may be meditation, prayer, gardening or a walk in the woods. Ultimately, it’s allowing ourselves a receptive space where we can get out of our heads and into the sacred place where our own truth resides. And then, we must have the courage to put ourselves on paper for others to see.

It’s a lofty challenge but according to Roger Rosenblatt the only one of worth. In his book Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Art and Craft of Writing he states:

“Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart … and the heart you must move is corrupt, depraved and desperate for your love … you must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does.”

His final words are even more compelling:

“For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing — word after word after word.”

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writefromtheheartMy prayer is that this blog continues to move or touch your heart in some way, and that I can speak for our sorrows — and our joys — word after word after word. Thank you!

The circle game

I’m celebrating a birthday soon. A piece of paper from a Texas hospital tells me I was born on August 18, 1949. You do the math. It’s not pretty. I’ve had some thoughts about aging and share them here. Spoiler alert: There is talk of God in this one.

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I have officially been an older person for some time. I still remember the shock of seeing the “senior citizen” discount on the Denny’s menu and the ads on TV for AARP, realizing I was eligible for both.

I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, sadly a body that isn’t the one I had when I was 40, much less 50.

old people shadowsThose “forgiving” pants that writer Anne Lamott talks about aren’t as forgiving anymore and I ask myself: How did this happen? I exercise and eat right.

But as I get older I find I have to work extra hard at it with less energy. And wasn’t it just the other day I was a gawky beanpole, going to a Beatles concert or a greenhorn working at my first newspaper job, terrified I would fail at this writing thing? Um. Nope. Happened decades ago.

So here’s the truth of it, kiddos:

Time flies as you grow older. Really. To some of you it may not seem that way, but believe me, I think there’s some kind of Divine accelerator button that gets pushed after each decade. It could also be a quantum physics thing but I’m not sure.

And that’s also part of the aging process. You learn. If you’re open, you do learn. I used to laugh when older folks would say, “If only I knew then what I know now.” Truth.

You learn that life gets messy; people can be loving or cruel; your bank account ebbs and flows; some nights dread and anxiety will drown your soul because you feel you haven’t done a danged thing with your life that amounts to anything; and then life will turn around and gobsmack you with the birth of a child, the perfumed scent of earth after a summer’s rain, an unexpected $5 you dig out of your jeans pocket.

If you’re a spiritual being — and I believe we all are — you learn that God is in everything and everywhere. Even in that politician or dictator or serial killer you despise.

God doesn’t play favorites and loves each person with this kind of cosmic abandon I will never fathom.

It’s such a relief to know that this love is totally accepting, always available and beckoning me, even though I screw up a lot and don’t always tap into it.

And as to that word “God.” We seem to have really created messes over that one.

In whatever ways you term that Divine source of love — and how can you define something so ineffable — that Supreme Being starts to become more visible to you as you age, in all creation, from that speck of a spider to raging waterfalls to that person sitting next to you on the train, sound asleep and snoring.

book-child-dreams-fantasy-imagination-Favim.com-123786As to my writing: I always thought I’d write a best-seller by now. I smile at that one because while I believe almost all things are possible, some things happen and some don’t for Divine reasons I’m not privy to. I’ve learned the art and craft of writing over 40-some years and feel I’m pretty danged good.

But sometimes, if I’m honest, I get frustrated when I see others being published and successful, and I’m still struggling. Then I say:

“A word with you, God. Time is getting short here. I’m doing my part and I’m writing my little heart out. What about you? Are you doing your part, God? You may be eternal and have a thousand years, but I don’t. 

Do you have any influence with a publisher or agent so my words can get out to a wider audience? Say what? You’ve had me ‘on hold’ for the last few decades and forgot to look at that blinking light? (Old-timers will get that one.) Well, pick up, for God’s sake! Um. For your sake. My sake. Whatever.”

woman at sunsetAs you approach the end of your timeline, you find that life stops giving you things and starts taking them away.

You’ve lost those you love or you look at those you love who are dying and you weep in anticipation of that, knowing it is part of the process and you will grieve and have bad days and then go on again. And you realize your turn is getting closer and you wonder — what will that feel like?

After all, I’ve never had this particular death experience before, and yes, fear creeps in, as well as wonder and awe at approaching another stage of life that is probably pretty amazing.

So two stories to end: A friend of mine lost her mother a few years ago. She was having a bad time of it and woke one morning to find the most unusual, magnificent sunrise streaked across the skies.

Then she heard her mother’s voice: “This is only a small portion of what it’s like here, to be in the presence of God. The face of God is so beautiful I don’t want to miss a single second of it.”

And then there’s Sam, a neighbor who is 95. Lanky and tall, he walks twice a day, if not more, puffing away at his cigar. I asked him once about the secret to a long life.

He told me: “I smoke my cigar, I take a nap, then I take my medicine.” He paused and winked. “And you know what my medicine is, don’t you? A shot of whiskey.”

So here’s to that shot of whiskey, to not missing a single second of the face of God, right here and right now, and to the insanities and joys of the human experience.

HANDSTOUCHINGS-33_000

As I head into another year of my life, I hold on to one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass: “We are all just walking each other home.”

Thanks to my companions of the heart, who love me, put up with me, support me and grace me as we walk each other home. I love you all.

******

 

 

 

Praying the path

When I wrote this essay almost 10 years ago, I had been in a desperate search for answers in my life. I knew, like the seasons, I had to let go. I share these words with the hope that others who are in this space now may know they are not alone. That healing and answers do come. Here is my story.

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leavesA leaf falls. Then another. I want to hold on, to summer, to my writing, to my life. But lately it feels as if I am losing them all.

The path I am walking winds next to a creek, stubbled with rocks. Somehow, the water finds its way around the stones, not pushing but simply being what it is. I stand there for some seconds, the stream rippling and gurgling and I, yearning to hear what my heart is struggling to tell me.

Another leaf glides down, landing softly in the stream, then floats away. Then another. I want summer to stay. I want the warmth and comfort of the season, the earthy smells of jasmine and honeysuckle, the sun burning my skin, the salty smell of ocean waves, the softness of a summer evening and fireflies flitting through tall weeds — I want it all to stay. But as singer Joni Mitchell wrote, “It’s got the urge for going, so I guess it’ll have to go.”

I walk a little further, up a small incline to a bend in the road. Here, the path splits. Both lanes are shaded and cool, two-paths-5both inviting. I find a nearby stump and sit. I am weary. It seems I have walked this path a hundred times before, searching for answers. It seems I have prayed this path too many times.

Now I must let go of even the prayers. I must rest in faith. I must fall into the uncertainty that is my life.

The truth is I may never find my calling or purpose. Or my writing may never find a home. I call myself a writer, but is that my path? And what does “being a writer” really mean? The world is filled with writers, offering their wisdom or insights. Writing is like any other task — hard work and seldom appreciated.

What I seek is deeper meaning in my life, that somehow my meager existence can better the world in some say. So I ask: “Is there something else, dear God — something deeper, greater — that you want of me?”

But I have no answers. For anything.  Jesus the Christ or Buddha would say this unknowing is good, that we must “lose our life to find it.” They would also advise to “do nothing” or “simply be.” Rilke would say to be patient toward all that is unresolved in the heart — to live the questions and not to seek the answers, not now.

All these seem like well-meaning platitudes. Here, years past mid-life, I want answers. I want ground under my feet.

queen-annes-lace-theresa-johnsonI bend over to pick a flower, Queen Anne’s Lace, and I unearth it, roots and all. This is how I feel lately. As if God has reached down and plucked me whole.

I inhale to feel my own life force, the cool air filling my lungs, then I exhale. With my breath are my prayers. They have become simple lately, so scaled down that at times they are barely audible. This is how I pray:

“I’m here. Help me. Thank you.”

I pray “I’m here” because I feel as if God has forgotten me. I feel the need to remind the Divine that I’m still here on earth, still yearning for a life that matters.

I pray “Help me” because I need God’s help more than ever to guide me.

And finally, I pray Thank you” my small token of hope that somewhere, somehow God is helping me, even though I don’t see it or feel it. Even then I’m not sure help is coming. But I have no other choice. I must be open to God’s graces, trust that my prayers are being heard. It is yet another letting go.

I finally stand. I must walk on water and on the ground, let summer go and trust that perhaps around a bend in the road, there is direction, hope, happiness. But I don’t know. There are no guarantees or promises.

I only know I must take the next step. I draw in another deep breath and choose one of the paths. I move forward. I whisper “I’m here” as another golden leaf drifts down, falling at my feet.

 

What is enough?

Sometimes it seems like there just isn’t enough. Enough time. Enough money. Enough happiness. But what is enough in our lives? Here are some stories for the journey.

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It was nearing Christmas in Georgia. Hot. Humid. But I had signed up for this work and while much of it was fulfilling, it wasn’t always easy. I was in my mid-20s and had joined a group serving the poor in the rural South and Appalachia. I had to be self-supporting so I worked at a day care center in the African-American community.

These children, ages 3-5, had so little. Despite their poverty, they found delight in the smallest of things, being pushed on a swing, listening to a story, throwing a ball to each other.

As Christmas approached, my friend and I decided to buy the children some gifts. She was the social worker at the center and so, with the Georgia sun beating down on us one December day, we set out to buy dolls, stuffed toys, games, trucks. We wrapped each present and then went to deliver them.

poverty_2226036bThe first stop was to the home of 5-year-old Willie James. The car bounced down a red-clay road into woods and then into an open space. When his “home” came into view, I stared in disbelief. It was a shack of tacked-together corrugated tin walls.

William James’ mother greeted us at the door. We walked into the one-room dwelling and onto dirt floors. Worn quilts hung on a clothesline, separating one space from the other. The smell of “greens” boiling on a makeshift fire filled the air with a pungent scent and smoke.

Willie James stood there, excited that his “teachers” had come to visit. My friend squatted down at eye level and handed him the Christmas package. “Here, Willie James. For you. Merry Christmas!”

His eyes grew wide and he broke into a smile and then laughter, grabbing for the gift. He tore at the wrapping paper, his joy spilling into the darkened room, unable to contain himself. When he saw the metal dump truck, he held it high in the air and then to his heart, clutching it as if someone might take it away.

“This is the BEST Christmas I ever had,” he shouted, kneeling down and scooting the truck on the dirt floor.

My heart swelled. I had seen poverty growing up in a Mexican “barrio” in Texas. But not like this. I would see more years later.

I had been working in public relations for a religious community of women serving the poor — especially women and children –in 19 countries. As part of my job, I was sent to write about one of the Sisters working in Tijuana, Mexico.

The people there lived in a “garbage dump” town, next to a stench-filled, skyscraper-tall mountain of trash. Poverty-facts-kid-with-garbageEach day, they would scour through the filth to salvage plastics, metals, anything they might sell to bring them perhaps $1 for the day. They foraged through things I can’t even imagine, just so they could survive.

The houses in this community, much like the one of Willie James, were a patchwork of plywood and corrugated metals. As I walked through the rutted, muddied streets, I didn’t see tears. Or complaints. I saw boys and girls playing, chasing each other, laughing. They had so little. But in their hearts, they were content.

Why do I share these stories? Because years later, I know the reality of these children — whether they are in Georgia, Tijuana or any part of the globe — has not changed. While they may laugh and play, they still have so little of the basics of life such as nutritious food, education, health care. Their futures are severely limited because they simply do not have enough.

In the face of such lack and “not enough-ness,” it is easy to become overwhelmed. It is easy to fall back on “There’s really nothing I can do.” But here is what I believe. We start where we are. One person. One simple act of service. We donate to a food pantry. We help someone with a job search. We visit a homebound person. We take an elderly person shopping. We are simply present to another person and hear what they have to say.

When it comes down to it, most of us really do have more than enough. And whatever that may be — time, money, resources, a listening heart — we can share from our surplus so that others may have enough.

In the end, only we can decide what is “enough” in life. The choice is always ours.